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Summer music studies end with playing Frescobaldi Mass

Posted By August 14, 2014 | 9:30 am | Lead Story #2

By Tanya Connor

Holy Cross College’s organ scholar played music written for a Mass – in a Mass – Aug. 2, which those involved said was a rare occurrence. The homilist even likened it to Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, using the words “marvel” and “miracle.”
Abraham Ross, the current organ scholar at the College of the Holy Cross, arranged for the Mass, which Jesuit Father John Gavin celebrated in the college’s St. Joseph Chapel. Father Gavin is an assistant professor in the religious studies department.
Mr. Ross, a 20-year-old music major going into his junior year, played the Mass parts of “Messa della Madonna,” by Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, who was appointed organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1608.
The music was inspired by the spirituality of the Mass, and that comes across better when it is played in a Mass, Mr. Ross told The Catholic Free Press. He said each piece has its own aura, and Frescobaldi’s notes in the scores tell performers where it is to be played. For example, Mr. Ross said, the elevation tocata is a “beautiful, transcendent, flowing gesture” which provides an “unimposing backdrop for the consecration,” creating a spiritual environment for worshippers to focus on what is going on at that moment.
But when the pieces are taken out of the context of the Mass, and played one right after the other in a concert, as is usually done now, some of this is lost, the student said.
“This was showing how a Mass was done in the 16th, 17th century in Italy,” said James David Christie, Holy Cross music professor and college organist, who was Mr. Ross’ faculty adviser for this project. “Certainly this was a rare performance in North America” in a liturgical context. He said he sang in the choir for this Mass in Italy in 1976 and has played movements of it in concerts and for church, but has not played the whole Mass.
In his homily Father Gavin connected the Mass to the day’s Gospel. He said it was a marvel that the disciples had bread and fish – staples of life and fruits of human labor – to feed people in a remote place. Jesus transformed these “wondrous gifts” into a miracle that fed thousands, he said.
“Today we have been blessed in this not-so-remote place to witness a marvel: the restored music of Girolamo Frescobaldi,” Father Gavin said in his prepared text. “The fruit of Abe’s labor of love this summer is our opportunity to listen to these sublime works that have remained hidden treasures for so many years! …
“This marvel has been transformed into a miracle because we are hearing it in its authentic context, in the presence of Christ, in the heart of the Mass. This is more than a concert … This music, through Christ, feeds not only our hearts, but also our souls. It multiplies and … overflows as an instrument that draws us closer to God.
“When the beauty of art joins the power of divine grace, we see an image of the incarnation, human and God as one. We are sharing in a privileged moment, one that no recording can convey. Let us not let these notes flow past without stirring us to feed upon the food that only Christ offers us.”
“It didn’t feel like a concert,” Professor Christie said. “There was a certain element of awe and mystery.” He said a Protestant friend who came was very moved.
“Father Gavin did a beautiful job,” and put a lot of work into it, he said.
Father Gavin said it was a hybrid in that he celebrated a post-Vatican II Mass with music written for a pre-Vatican II one, but they were able to make it fit.
Professor Christie said Mr. Ross got together the choir, rehearsed with them and improvised the music he played for the recessional, in the style of Frescobaldi. Mr. Ross said Frescobaldi didn’t include a recessional in this Mass; he expected the organist to improvise, to make it up on the spot.
All but one of the organ pieces Frescobaldi wrote for this Mass are unaccompanied by words; Latin chants alternated with them, Mr. Ross explained. So for the Aug. 2 Mass he chose chants from a book published in Rome 1614, with which Frescobaldi must have been familiar. He directed the choir, composed mainly of fellow students from the Holy Cross Schola.
“We have such a  supportive community at Holy Cross,” he said. “Everyone was so willing to help out and it was nice to see all the skills coming together.” And his sisters, Rose, 17, and Adelaide, 13, came from the Bangor area of Maine to be altar servers for the Mass.
Mr. Ross expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the college’s Mellon Summer Research Program, for which the Mass was his final presentation. The Worcester chapter of the American Guild of Organists co-sponsored the Mass.
It is hard to find, outside of Italy, a replica of the kind of organ Frescobaldi used, Mr. Ross said. So he did part of his research in Italy, working with organ expert Francesco Cera. (His minor is Italian.)
“Frescobaldi is lauded as the most important Italian organist and composer for the instrument,” Mr. Ross said in the Mass program, he put together. It says “Fiori Musicali,” one of Frescobaldi’s most significant works, comprises three Masses, the third of which is “Messa della Madonna.”
Mr. Ross said he thinks he will use this summer’s work in further studies.